Monday’s Muse: Sarah Siddons

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Joshua Reynolds was born on the 16th of July, 1723, in the town of Plympton. His father was the Reverend Samuel Reynolds who was a former fellow of Balliol College and master of the local school. From a young age, Reynolds showed a particular talent for draughtsmanship and his elder sister, Mary, encouraged his artistic interest all through his childhood, and even paid half the money for his first apprenticeship to Thomas Hudson. Hudson was an accomplished, albeit somewhat fashionable, painter, and he taught Reynolds to copy the drawings in his collection of Old Masters. Reynolds did not remain in the apprenticeship for long. He left after barely six months. In 1749, following an invitation from Commodore Keppel, Reynolds was able to travel aboard HMS Centurion all over the Mediterranean, and consequently he became better acquainted with not only the works of the Old Masters, but also the style of Grand Manner. Reynolds actually left the voyage and remained in Rome for two years to continue his studies. He travelled home across the continent by way of Florence, Bologna, Venice and finally Paris.

When Reynolds reestablished himself in London, he worked tirelessly with few breaks, and almost no holidays. Instead of leaving his studio to socialize, he invited his friends (Dr. Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and David Garrick numbered amongst them) to stop by and visit. After awhile he eventually organized his social circle into a dining club, which was called, simply, The Club. Reynolds also became one of the earliest members of The Royal Academy of Arts. Reynolds and his friends found themselves at a key juncture in Georgian society: creativity was becoming a commodity. The cult of celebrity was in its most nascent stages. Before the likes of David Garrick and Sarah Siddons there are few, if any, actors whose names and performances have not been worn away by the march of time.

Sarah Siddons represents one of the most notable examples of early celebrity, as not only was she universally embraced by the aristocracy (Siddons’ patrons were the Royal family), the intelligentsia (Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson etc.), and the general public; Sarah Siddons was a woman. She was born in Wales to a family of modest means, and she married a fellow actor at the age of 18. Her fame, her notoriety, and her social success eclipsed that of all of her peers (except perhaps Garrick’s), and most importantly it allowed her to be immortalised through a string of paintings by almost every famous and fashionable painter of the time. Siddons was painted into posterity. Compared with today’s celebrities whose lives are catalogued down to the most mundane of details, the few surviving portraits of Siddons are a drop in the bucket. Yet given that Wollstonecraft’s seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Women a full eighteen years after Siddons’ stage debut, and the first Married Women’s Property Act was passed twenty-nine years after her death. The amount that Siddons managed to achieve during her lifetime is all the more impressive.

Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse
Reynolds’ Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse

 

Reynolds’ portrait of Siddons, titled Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse was painted when Siddons was twenty-eight years old. Siddons had won universal praise for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth, and Reynolds invited her to his studio in the hopes that she would model for him as Melpoméne – the Greek Muse of Tragedy. Reynolds brushwork, and composition are in keeping with the key tenets of Grand Mannerism. Siddons is depicted seated, with the two allegorical figures of Pity and Terror standing behind her at each shoulder. Reynolds chose a muted color palette of browns, burnt oranges, ochres and yellows, which clash with the heavy blacks and the dazzling white of her skin. The delicacy of Siddons’ features and the stark contrast of her skin against the clashing tones offer a sense of quiet power. She sits with self-assurance and solidity against the seemingly shifting and swirling tones of her garments and surroundings. In an amusing bid to tie his name to Siddons’ fame, Reynolds signed the hem of her gown, later stating that he had “resolved to go down to posterity on the hem of your garment.”

The portrait remains as not only a monument to Reynolds’ exceptional technique and style, but also as a precursor to the obsession with celebrity that would ensue over the successive centuries. Siddons, it should be noted is immortalized here, not only as herself but as the very embodiment – the zenith – of tragedy and the dramatic arts.